The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is holding its third-annual Excelleration Leadership Camp at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville this week.
Nearly 150 area athletes and coaches gathered for the event, which stresses leadership skills and positive life choices. Campers came from as far south as Harrisonville, and as far east as Worth County, along with the rest of Northwest Missouri.
The goal, according to area FCA director Wes Simmons, is to teach players and coaches how to go beyond x's and o's and comprehend the "y's" — the intangible qualities that mold character and create a willingness to serve.
Simmons, who played football for the Northwest Bearcats from 1996-2000, was a starting linebacker for the 1998 and 1999 national championship teams before becoming a graduate assistant coach until 2003.
"When we started this camp three years ago it was an experiment," Simmons said. "We have seen a lot of change in not only the campuses [of schools who participate] but in entire communities.
"The goal is to empower coaches and captains to employ the teachings of Christ in all aspects of their teams."
Jeff Duke, a coach clinician who is also a professor at the University of Central Florida and a high school coach, said that coaches are some of the most influential people in a young athlete’s life.
"There are 53 million kids involved in sports right now in this country," Duke said.
“Everyone remembers their coach. We want them to have a positive influence. My calling right now is to let the coaches know the legacy that they will leave."
Trevor Nashleanas, area FCA representative, also recognizes the importance of a coach's influence.
"This camp is about training the coaches and young athletes to make an impact for Jesus on their teams," Nashleanas said. "That is our No. 1 goal. The second is to see those athletes and coaches start leadership programs on their own teams."
The camp tries to instill values that make a difference on and off the field, and Simmons says he relies on the philosophy he learned from former Northwest head football coach Mel Tjeersdma, who used to say "I believe that faith is meant to be shared, not forced."
"We don't want it to just be 'the religious group' on the team," Nashleanas said. "We want to show that religion does good things, and teach how to let it guide our actions, words and character."
More than 20 volunteers, mostly college athletes, and FCA employees helped out during the camp, which lasts through this afternoon.
Simmons said the camp strengthens athletes and coaches physically, psychologically and spiritually. Being proficient in all three areas makes for a better athlete, team leader and overall person, he said.
While most of the camp was dedicated to honing leadership skills, there was plenty of time for just having fun.
Campers went out to the Mozingo Outdoor Education Recreation Area on Tuesday where they ran the challenging rope course and scaled the rock-climbing wall. Many of the activities were team-centric, focusing on encouraging coaches and athletes to work together toward a common goal.
Three years ago, only 40 campers attended the gathering. The numbers doubled last year and nearly doubled again this year.
"It is a great opportunity and a great program," Simmons said. "We are very excited to see it grow, and to see that it is making a positive impact for the coaches and athletes that come."
Bearcat quarterback Trevor Adams has been involved in FCA since high school in Texas and considers himself lucky to be a volunteer and part of the camp's leadership team.
"It's been awesome. Any way you can take the gospel onto a sports field is great," Adams said. "It's good to reach people that might normally be intimidated at other [religious] things. FCA has shown me in so many ways how blessed I am to be in the position I'm in."
Many campers share the same sentiment. Kase Newcomb, who will be a senior at Mound City High School, has attended the camp all three years.
"It overtakes you, the spiritual part," Newcomb said. "It's really fun to come and meet new people. It's also nice to see people like us to be successful at the college level, it gives us hope."
Ray McElroy, who played defensive back in the NFL for the Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions between 1995 and 2001, is now the chaplain for the Chicago Bears.
McElroy said he was introduced to FCA while in college and as a Christian, saw it as something cool that he wanted to be a part of.
In addition to his work with the Bears, McElroy travels around the country as an inspirational speaker at FCA events. Newcomb said McElroy's speeches are his favorite part of camp, and McElroy pointed out that FCA has been a big part of his life since he joined.
"It was something I wanted to be connected to," McElroy said. "Then I got to the NFL and saw guys like Tony Dungy and Mike Singletary who put Christ first in their lives. Those guys are great athletes and coaches, and there is a great connection between the two platforms of careers and putting Christ first."